David Henry Hwang

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David Henry Hwang Biography

In David Henry Hwang's plays, East and West often meet—and the results are usually not pretty. No other playwright has had as much critical and commercial success in confronting issues of Asian and Asian-American identity. His most heralded work, M. Butterfly, took a real-life political scandal and filtered it through the lens of Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly. The result is a play that questions traditional notions of race, gender, and identity. In Hwang’s other works, F.O.B. (an acronym for the derogatory phrase “fresh off the boat”) and Yellow Face, the playwright continues to confront the question of how Americans identify (and mis-identify) Asians. In addition, he examines and deconstructs how Asians identify themselves. His plays are at once confrontational and sharply humorous, and have helped carve a place for Asian-American theater in the United States.

Facts and Trivia

  • Hwang rewrote the book for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, which centers on Asian-American immigrants. Ironically, Hwang’s more multicultural and politically correct version was less commercially successful than the original.
  • Hwang serves on the Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and was appointed by President Clinton.
  • Hwang has worked closely with prolific composer Philip Glass. The two have collaborated on numerous music- and dance-based pieces.
  • Hwang is the first Asian American to win a Tony Award for Best Play. He received it for his 1988 work M. Butterfly.
  • Hwang wrote the books for the Disney musicals Tarzan (based upon the animated film of the same name) and Aida (which featured music by Elton John).


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David Henry Hwang was born on August 11, 1957, in San Gabriel, a suburb of Los Angeles. His father, Henry Y. Hwang, grew up in Shanghai, China, and in the 1970’s founded the Far East National Bank, the first Asian American-owned national bank in the United States. David’s mother, Dorothy Hwang, born in southeast China and raised in the Philippines, was a talented pianist who encouraged her son to play the violin. Although David’s mother and sister became classical musicians, he opted for jazz and played in an all-Asian rock band during college. He even composed an “Oriental riff” for his play Face Value (1993).

Educated in an elite preparatory school, Hwang was always interested in words. He was on the school’s debate team and was encouraged by his parents to become a lawyer. Hwang’s family was actively involved in the “born again” Evangelical Christian Church, a fact bitterly satirized in his play Family Devotions (1981). He grew up feeling that he should date only Chinese girls and for a few years was married to Ophelia Chong, a Chinese Canadian artist. His later plays, such as M. Butterfly (1988), Bondage (1992), and Face Value, use themes of interracial love and rebellion against traditional images and expectations. He has said that there was always a part of him that did things that were not expected of him. In the early 1990’s, he began living with Caucasian actress Kathryn Layng in Los Angeles, whom he married in 1993. The couple resides with their children in New York City. Hwang promotes in his work the idea of cultures existing harmoniously side by side, and he believes that children of mixed heritage represent the world’s future.

At Stanford University, John L’Heurex, a novelist and creative-writing instructor, encouraged Hwang to pursue playwriting. Another of Hwang’s early formative influences was the 1978 Padua Hills Playwrights Festival workshop, where he studied under Sam Shepard, an explosive playwright whose work combines human interaction with mythmaking and to whom Hwang dedicated Family Devotions. His play F.O.B. (1978) was staged Off-Broadway and was developed for the Playwrights’ Conference of the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and the New York Shakespeare Festival. As critic Douglas Street pointed out, F.O.B. is American in style and Asian in its concerns. It explores issues to which Hwang has returned frequently in his writing: the interplay between the insider and the outsider and the exploration of loneliness. The play received rave reviews and garnered many awards, including a 1981 Obie Award as best Off-Broadway production.

The Dance and the Railroad (1981), which Hwang wrote while studying at the Yale School of Drama, focuses exclusively and evocatively on Chinese history. Family Devotions is a bizarre Southern California domestic farce about confrontation, alienation, and the loss of ethnic awareness. Feeling that he had exhausted his Chinese American identity as a subject and given the freedom to experiment by a Rockefeller grant in 1983, Hwang turned to Japanese literature for his ethereally tragic one-acts The House of Sleeping Beauties and Sound of a Voice (both 1983). Another one-act that also explores the boundary between myth and reality is As the Crow Flies (1986), which centers on a black domestic with two identities. Hwang modeled the central character after the woman who cleaned house for his grandmother. Rich Relations (1986) was both a critical and a financial flop, but in its attacks on materialism and in its use of an all-white cast—and because its failure liberated Hwang to move beyond the depiction of his relatives—it is an important part of his canon.

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a bizarre French spy trial and the opera music of Giacomo Puccini combine in Hwang’s hit Broadway playM. Butterfly, which made Hwang the first Asian American to earn the coveted Tony Award and the first U.S. playwright since Edward Albee to become an international phenomenon. A 1993 film version, also written by Hwang, was directed by David Cronenberg and starred Jeremy Irons and John Lone. After the play opened in New York, Hwang, American composer Philip Glass, and designer Jerome Sirlin mounted the opaquely intellectual monologue One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof (1988), a ninety-minute science-fiction music drama that premiered in a hangar at the Vienna International Airport. Hwang and Glass collaborated as well on The Voyage (1992), mounted by the Metropolitan Opera to observe the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’s landing in America.

Sexual and racial obsessions surface in Bondage (1992), in which an anonymous, leather-clad female dominatrix and a submissive male play multiple roles in a series of sexual games. Face Value (1993), which centers on the opening of a bogus racist musical called The Real Manchu, is a farce on mistaken identities that seeks to fight racial stereotypes by using them. Hwang calls it a “dream fantasy” that employs outrageous caricature to get beyond the issue of race. Trying to Find Chinatown (1996) is a two-person play that also questions ethnic identity. A Caucasian character adopted by an Asian American family proves more Asian in his outlook and values than the Asian American male whom he stops on the street for directions. Golden Child (1996), considered by critics to be the third installment of Hwang’s family trilogy (which includes Family Devotions and Rich Relations), explores Chinese American traditions, those that liberate and those that bind. The play earned Hwang his second Obie Award and was nominated for the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play. Hwang has expressed the yearning to abandon grand themes, such as race, and write instead about small, personal details that make up an individual life.

This yearning may explain his shift in creative direction in the late 1990’s, when Hwang began to adapt other writers’ works for the stage. His 1998 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867) is equal parts folktale and social commentary, employing psychology to reinterpret the sundry dark creatures, including trolls, of the original. Like many Hwang works, it questions the indeterminate nature of human identity. Next Hwang approached the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in 1996 to request permission, which he was granted, to readapt Flower Drum Song, based on the 1957 novel by Chin Yang Lee. Intrigued since his teen years by the musical’s Asian love story, he was simultaneously troubled by racial stereotypes in the production. One of the changes that Hwang made to the script, which he entirely rewrote, was to enhance and empower the role of the female character Mei-Li, whom he believed was underdeveloped in the earlier adaptation. In his version, the mail-order bride who journeys to the United States to meet her groom is transformed into a political refugee escaping Communist China. Again, Hwang seeks to explore and explode racial mythologies, this time those inherited from the popular theatrics of his youth. In 2003, Flower Drum Song earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Book of a Musical.

In 1987, Hwang cofounded both the Theatre Communications Group and the Stanford Asian Theatre Group to promote the production of multiethnic dramas. He sits on the board of directors for the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America, and he is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and Phi Beta Kappa. In 1994, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, a post that he held until 2001. Hwang has served the China Institute (1993-2002) and the Center for Arts and Culture (1998-2000) as a spokesperson for Asian American arts. In 1998, he received an honorary doctorate of letters from Columbia College.


Critical Essays